The lawmakers behind the recent repeal of a minimum wage ballot initiative in Washington, D.C. received thousands of dollars in contributions from the restaurant industry, raising doubts about their motivation for rolling back the popular measure.
The D.C. City Council voted this week to overturn Initiative 77, a ballot measure that would have raised the tipped minimum wage in the nation’s capital to $15 an hour by 2026. The initiative itself passed by an 11-point margin in June, bolstered by support in predominantly African-American precincts. But a group of legislators led by Democratic Council Chairman Phil Mendelson quickly moved to repeal the ballot initiative, citing economic concerns and opposition from small businesses, which culminated in this week’s vote.
An analysis of campaign finance disclosures from the past two election cycles by ThinkProgress and the watchdog group Public Citizen finds that the D.C. Restaurant Industry and its lobbyists have contributed more than $236,000 to the campaigns of current councilmembers and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), who also opposes Initiative 77. More than half of those contributions went to just three people: Mayor Bowser, Council Chair Mendelson, and former Mayor Vincent Gray, another Initiative 77 opponent who now sits on the council.
Mendelson was perhaps the most prominent opponent of raising the tipped minimum wage in the nation’s capital. Mendelson argued that he opposed the bill because of worker opposition. “I have never seen legislation like this, purported to help individuals—to help workers,” Mendelson told reporters ahead of the repeal vote. “What I see over and over is workers who are fearful that their jobs will be hurt, that their wages will be reduced.”
Documents from the D.C. office of campaign finance obtained by ThinkProgress show that Mendelson received substantial campaign contributions from the restaurant industry, along with individuals and PACs aligned with it, contributions that coincided with the legislation’s passage through the council.
On March 23rd, two weeks after the D.C. Board of Elections approved the ballot initiative, the Restaurant Industry’s PAC (Food Service PAC) donated the maximum allowable amount of $1,500 directly to Mendelson’s campaign. The same day also marked a flurry of contributions from industry leadership. John Snedden, a restaurant owner and former chair of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), donated the maximum amount, as did Mindful Restaurant Group, a local chain that runs nine high-end establishments. Greg Casten, another RAMW board member, and the owner of Tony and Joe’s Seafood and Ivy City Smokehouse, gave $1,000.
In June, days before Initiative 77 passed, “Save Our Tip System, Initiative 77”—the restaurant industry’s front group opposing the ballot initiative—donated the maximum allowable amount to Mendelson’s campaign. Weeks later, as the council was debating the bill to repeal Initiative 77, Mendelson received another $1,500 donation, this time from John Guggenmos, a prominent D.C. restaurant owner and developer who founded his own anti-77 shadow group, NO2DC77. Another major contributor was Lettuce Entertain You (LEYE), a national chain that operates over 60 restaurants, including Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in D.C.
Those contributions are just the tip of the iceberg. In the past two elections, the restaurant industry has given $34,000 to Mendelson’s campaigns, according to the Public Citizen report. The vast majority of those–$31,000 worth–came during the political battle over Initiative 77. In a statement, Mendelson said, “The contributions to all election campaigns are a matter of record. Yes, I received contributions from restaurant operators, their trade association, and considerable support from restaurant workers. Contributions typically reflect a candidate’s position rather than the other way around. By analogy: liberals don’t contribute to candidates who then become liberal. It was no secret, long before Primary Election Day, that I opposed Initiative 77; indeed, I would say that was part of my platform and I am being true to my promise.”
Former Mayor and current Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray was another fervent opponent of Initiative 77, despite the fact that his Ward voted for the ballot measure by 23 points. Although he is not facing reelection this year, Gray received over $34,250 from the industry in his 2014 mayoral election and 2016 Council election. A search through his 2016 campaign reveals contributions from Casten, along with at least two $500 contributions from Clyde’s Restaurant Group–a major opponent of 77. Clyde’s Managing Director David Moran chairs RAMW. ThinkProgress reached out to Gray’s office for comment, but did not receive a response.
Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie faces reelection this year in Ward 5, a predominantly African-American area of the city, which supported Initiative 77 by an almost 20 percentage point margin. Despite representing one of the most pro-77 wards in the city, McDuffie was a reliable supporter of repeal.
A review of his campaign finance disclosure forms could help explain why. In his past two elections, McDuffie has received $8,000 from the restaurant industry. As with Bowser and Mendelson, much of that money came from RAMW and its associates. In December, Snedden donated $500. A few months later, Casten and his wife each donated $500. In a statement to ThinkProgress, McDuffie argued the contributions did not influence his vote. “To be clear, my work on the Council is informed strictly by what I think is best for the residents of the District of Columbia and any suggestion that campaign contributions dictate my actions is patently false,” he told ThinkProgress. “The ways that campaigns are funded in this city and our country are problematic, which is why I passed a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill in 2013, which closed the multiple LLC loophole, as highlighted in the Public Citizen report. I also championed the District’s new campaign public financing law in hopes of strengthening our local democracy.”
Many of the leaders of the anti-77 campaign also contributed to the re-election campaign of Mayor Bowser, who not only has significant sway to whip votes within the council but who also has the ability to veto bills. In December, when RAMW was fighting to stop Initiative 77 from appearing on the ballot, Casten personally donated $2,000 to her 2018 re-election campaign. The following month, the Foodservice PAC gave $2,000, Clyde’s of Georgetown gave $2,000, and the Mindful Restaurant group gave $500 to her campaign.
In her past two elections, Bowser has received a total of $65,050 from the restaurant industry–a whopping 41 percent of the industry’s contributions. The Mayor’s office directed our questions to Bowser’s reelection campaign, who did not respond to a request for comment.
It is not uncommon for industries who stand to be affected by legislation to try to influence the outcome. But the campaign to repeal Initiative 77 stands out in both scale and effectiveness. Every member of the D.C. Council is either a registered Democrat or a left-leaning Independent. The initiative itself was supported by a nearly every local progressive advocacy group, think tank, and labor union–typically powerful voices in the city–not to mention the city’s voters. The most organized opposition, aside from the restaurant industry, came from the D.C. Republican Party. Despite that, every councilmember who voted to repeal the ballot measure represented a district where the initiative passed.
As Bowser once said, “My job is to implement the people’s law. The people change the law, and it’s my job to implement it.” The exception, it seems, is when the people’s law conflicts with her campaign donors.
This piece was updated with a statement from Mendelson.
CORRECTION: This piece originally stated that the $65,050 from the restaurant industry contributed to Bowser over the last two elections made up 41 percent of her total contributions. It is actually 41 percent of the industry’s contributions.
Jeremy Slevin is the Director of Antipoverty Advocacy for the Poverty with the Prosperity Program at American Progress. Before joining American Progress, he was a producer at MSNBC, where he reported, wrote, and produced political stories for the Emmy-nominated “NOW With Alex Wagner” and “MSNBC Live with Kate Snow.”
Zahra Mion is the Communications and Advocacy Associate for the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress.
ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress.